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Dynamic do-it-yourself schools

Districts develop their own technology to save money and gain more control
Penn Manor School District IT staff and student technology apprentices discuss FLDT, their DIY software imaging program for in-house student laptop management.
Penn Manor School District IT staff and student technology apprentices discuss FLDT, their DIY software imaging program for in-house student laptop management.

Developers created some of the world’s most recognized software in garages and college dorms.

The same do-it-yourself (DIY) spirit thrives today across public education. School innovators customize software that ranges from small applications used within a single classroom to programs that support a district’s full administrative functions.

Districts build their own software when they can’t buy the product they want, when existing programs don’t provide the adequate functionality—and to save money.

Buy vs. build

When making the “buy vs. build” decision, you must research whether the software is available and then determine if it meets most of the district’s needs.

Advice from DIY veterans

  • Kill applications you no longer need. Don’t spend time supporting them.
  • Get input on needed functionality before building software. Then ask for feedback after the build and make adjustments as needed.
  • Be patient. Projects will usually take twice as long as you think. With most software projects, the first 80 percent takes 20 percent of the time; the last 20 percent takes 80 percent.
  • Start with a small project.
  • Consider assembling your own laptops to get customized hardware and save costs.
  • Involve students for added support for your tech staff and provide them with an authentic learning experience.
  • Have the right people on your team. Some DIY software requires the expertise of programmers or webmasters.
  • Consider whether your IT staff has the time to build and maintain software.
  • Have a strong network of peers in the field.
  • Identify outside resources such as adults in the community who can develop software.
  • Leverage tutorials and other resources on the internet. The DIY community is usually very willing to help and can be found via Google and Twitter searches.

“We’ve had instances where we wished an application (that was commercially available) had more features, but we decided it was ‘good enough,’ ” says Steve Young, chief technology officer at Judson ISD in Texas. “We knew we could build a better solution, but you have to weigh carefully the time it will take a developer to create it, and then the time to support it.”

In 2007, Judson ISD built its own Parent Center web portal when it couldn’t find a comprehensive solution on the market. The provider of their student information system offered a portal, but it included only the data that was available within the SIS—such as demographic data, parent contact information, courses and grades.

Judson ISD wanted a one-stop center for parents and students to access information from other systems, too. Judson built its own award-winning portal that gives users access to the SIS data plus information from third-party systems about attendance, library usage, health, discipline and meals. Last year, students and parents logged in more than 1,000,000 times.

Although building the application took about six months of the programmer’s time, the cost of her salary for that period was far less than the expense of a commercial solution, says Young.

Next, Young developed a mobile app for the portal called Judson ISD Connect! that can be accessed from an iPhone, iPad or Android device. In addition to providing access to all the elements of the Parent Center, the mobile app includes an RSS calendar feed, and the district can easily upload videos and other graphics.

Young built the app with the Como App Maker. It is software designed for people with no technical skills to create mobile apps. The total cost for the project was $625, which includes the fees for Como, the provider of Como App Maker, Apple and Google.

“The application was entirely built in-house, with a relatively small amount of staff time, and very modest funds,” says Young. “Buying a similar solution from a commercial vendor would cost about five figures a year.”

Judson ISD also has created about 15 additional apps, including one that houses all human resource-related information. It lets the department push out materials—like employee handbooks—and track whether staff have taken required training. The district’s fairly large tech department—31 people—allows it to take on DIY projects that smaller districts might not.

Saving and learning

Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania estimates the district saved at least $360,000 in licensing fees by using Linux open source software as its operating system and building laptops for the high school’s 1-to-1 program.

“We initially took the DIY approach because of the cost savings,” says Charlie Reisinger, technology director at the Penn Manor district. “The philosophy makes tons of sense for districts that don’t have cash. However we also discovered that by using our own resources, we gained the ability to customize and make systems and apps work better for our district.”

For example, Penn Manor customized their laptops, selecting the controller and motherboard best suited for their needs. Then students assembled the laptops and loaded them with the operating system and other software that students need. That initiative gave the district confidence to build its own software applications.

Students coded the imaging software that loads all applications on new laptops. The district’s tech staff then added new functions, including a script that requires students to set passwords when they receive a new computer. “The application reduces the time we (IT staff) need to spend preparing the laptops,” says Reisinger.

The district also created a simple but useful application called PaperPlane after an IT staff member saw a teacher direct students to a website by writing out a URL on a board. PaperPlane works like instant messaging and lets teachers and students quickly send a website link to every laptop in a classroom. The district also wrote the software for its help desk system.

By creating its own software and system tools, the district gained control over when to deploy software, updates and bug fixes—rather than reacting to a vendor’s schedule, says Reisinger. And involving students in software development provides a powerful experience.

“The embedded learning that students gain is a thousand times more significant than the cost savings,” he says.

Going beyond IT

McDonogh School, a private school in Maryland, started small, building an app for parents to register for evening programs to learn more about the internet.

Today, the app has grown into the school’s master scheduling system. It houses staffing and sports schedules, and room locations for after-school events. It’s one of a series of interlinked applications that the school built in Adobe Cold Fusion, which is software for building web applications, to manage most administrative functions.

Students build software during a summer intern program. Jack Hardcastle, director of technology at McDonogh, spends about 25 percent of his time during the summer overseeing the student interns and their projects.

“The program started as a way to get some custom functionality very cheaply,” says Hardcastle. “But it’s evolved into a great learning experience for students.”

Seasoned do-it-yourself leaders caution that custom-built applications require ongoing support and maintenance. The programmer at Judson ISD devotes about 25 percent of her time to maintaining the parent portal. Hardcastle spends about 10 percent of his time keeping the website up and running, and also fixes bugs and maintains other DIY software throughout the year.

The fun of creating apps is not limited to the IT staff. Chris Aviles is the edtech coach at Fair Haven School District in New Jersey who taught himself coding. He’s built several apps based on Google Apps for Education, including:

  • a Leader Board to track students’ assignments and achievements within a competitive game format
  • a Student Tracker for individual students to monitor feedback on their blogs
  • A classroom view that allows teachers to identify writing concepts the class needs to work on.

“When I talk to administrators about DIY, I make the point that there are so many initiatives and regulations in education that are out of our control,” says Reisinger. “DIY is an opportunity to take control.”

Katie Kilfoyle Remis is a freelance writer in upstate New York.